What is Grad School Like?

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

When I first started researching MFT master's programs, one of the questions that kept gnawing at me was, "what is it really like to be in one of these programs?" Each program seemed so different, and I didn't have a great idea of what "perks" I should be prioritizing over others. Should a flexible schedule at multiple campuses be the deciding factor? Or should I shoot for a rigorous "lockstep" program that would get me out in the least amount of time? Would I be missing anything if I did an online program? And what's the deal with "fieldwork sites," anyway??

I've successfully completed my first semester in graduate school and have begun my second--which includes the fieldwork/traineeship process. I wanted to give you a breakdown of what I've experienced so far. Bear in mind, this is one experience, and I'm basing all of my judgments on my one experience. I'll be honest about what I think, but you may think and feel differently from me, and ultimately come to different conclusions, and that's ok! I just wanted to illuminate the whole thing a little.

For many reasons, I decided to attend California State University, Northridge (CSUN) in Los Angeles, CA. First, I'm going to address the various factors that influenced this decision so you can see my thought process and how it panned out. Then, I'll give you a look inside what my classes were like.

Deciding Factors

Location was the most important part of the decision for me . The school I attended had to be in Los Angeles, because I couldn't relocate. That being said, I didn't feel like I needed to attend the closest campus to my place--I didn't mind driving under an hour, but I couldn't attend school in Santa Barbara or anything. I wrote a whole post on why location of your grad program is important if you'd like some more information.

After that, cost was an enormous factor. I'm still paying off student loans from my undergraduate years, so I didn't want to take on another huge chunk of debt. It seems like you can make a solid living as a marriage and family therapist, but you're probably not going to be a millionaire, so it didn't make sense to me to take on $100,000 of debt just for a master's degree. That ruled out programs like Pepperdine and USC. The CSU schools, however, were remarkably affordable.

Once I narrowed down my choices based on location and cost, I started to consider the less-easily-quantifiable factors. I wanted to get a good education, be taught by good professors, have exposure to diverse populations, and have some flexibility to make my experience personal to me.

Trying to determine the quality of the education and professors at different programs was difficult. What worked best for me was doing some Google and library research on whatever professor names I could find. Some were easy--CSUN, for example, lists its full-time faculty on its website. Others, like Alliant, don't have a full list of faculty members, just a sampling of professors in the program (and information was scant on the Los Angeles ones).

Once I had some names, I could see if they were actively practicing, researching, publishing, presenting at conferences, speaking on panels, etc. Quickly I determined that the faculty at CSUN was very active in all those activities, which gave me a sense that the program was probably academically rigorous rather than geared simply towards meeting accreditation requirements.

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

Accreditation was another thing I considered but was far from the deciding factor. The only Los Angeles-area COAMFTE school while I was applying was Alliant; CSUN had CACREP accreditation, which seemed to be not as "great" as COAMFTE but better than nothing. However, I found out after I applied that CSUN had in fact been actively pursuing COAMFTE accreditation and was awarded it right before I enrolled--by the time I started, CSUN's program was, in fact, COAMFTE-accredited. You can read about why that is (sort of) important in my blog post on accreditation and why it matters.

Finally, the program format was important to me. CSUN's MFT program meets two days per week in the evenings. You are placed in either the Monday/Wednesday cohort or the Tuesday/Thursday cohort, and for the entirety of the program you stay in those groups. I figured this would give me the flexibility to work during the days and go to school in the evenings (I will get to how that worked out in just a second).

The program has been described as a "lockstep" program--the cohort moves through the program together, and all classes and the order in which they are taken is prescribed. So first semester, everyone takes the same classes, though you may have different professors; the second semester, you all move on to the next set of classes as a group. This differs from a program like Pepperdine's evening format program, where they tell you what classes you need to graduate, and then you figure out what order you want to take them (and where). If you would like to know more about different program format options, check out my blog post on that subject.

So, how did it all work out?

What Grad School is Really Like

Honestly, I feel like I made the perfect decision for me. The commute to CSUN is not bad, and parking isn't that great a challenge for evening classes. It costs a good chunk of change to go to grad school, but my program is significantly more affordable than most other programs in the area so every time I have to pay my tuition I remind myself it could be lots worse!

The professors are, as I'd hoped, incredible. For the most part, each is brilliant and on the cutting edge of his or her particular area of expertise, and every single one is so supportive and caring--they truly do want students to succeed.

Marriage and family therapy therapist psychotherapist graduate student masters degree doctorate phd MFT licensed prelicensed clinical social worker trainee intern associate

But the x-factor in my experience has been my classmates. I'd hoped that by going to a cohort-model program, I would be able to form stronger bonds with classmates (my future colleagues) than I might be able to attending a program where you have different classmates for every class, and I definitely think that is true. Within the first few weeks of class, I'd met and formed friendships with some really amazing people, and as the semester went on, those bonds deepened and even more bonds were made. Even this semester, I'm still making new friends and adding to this incredible support system that I'm not sure I would have found elsewhere. It is for this reason alone--my classmates--that I would urge anyone considering an online program to take a look at on-campus programs one more time. I'm sure you can probably learn a fair amount of material via online delivery, but I think my experience would have been far less valuable without hearing my classmates' perspectives during in-class discussions or being able to engage with them outside of class. It really is the thing that will push your grad school experience from sufficient to transformative.

My Classes

First semester, our cohort had to take Counseling Theories, Practicum, Law & Ethics, and Clinical Research Methods. There were two different instructors for Theories, four for Practicum, and then the same instructor taught two different sections of Law & Ethics, and another instructor taught two different sections of Clinical Research. 

I had Dr. Stan Charnofsky for Counseling Theories, and there were about 20 students in the class. On the first day, he gave us an overview of what we would be doing in class--every week, a group would present on a specific psychotherapeutic theory for about an hour, and then after than Dr. Charnofsky would add a little bit of information from his own perspective. A sign-up sheet was passed around and we signed up for whichever theory we wanted to present on (I picked postmodernism). We had one textbook, and every week our assignment was just to read the chapter out of the book that applied to the upcoming presentation.

The class was an interesting overview of all the theories that make up the field of psychotherapy. We covered everything from Freud to gestalt to person-centered to choice theory to an overview of family systems. It was really easy, which was a nice way to ease into graduate school (because my other classes were not easy). We had no exams during the semester, and the final was a group discussion with Dr. Charnofsky--he presented a case vignette, then we brainstormed different ways we could approach the case from different theoretical perspectives. Dr. Charnofsky was always very supportive and very kind, and he really encouraged us to do our presentations in whatever way we felt inspired to do (most of us did PowerPoints but he was open to anything if you wanted to be more creative).

This class is where I made the strongest bonds with my classmates. I had Dr. Mark Stevens and I don't think I've made a luckier choice in my entire life--I just randomly chose to be in his practicum because I'd seen him speak at orientation and he seemed nice. He's great. He really got a feel for our class's comfort level, didn't let preconceived class structure get in the way of us getting to know each other, and was just a gentle supportive presence at every turn.

In this class, we began doing role-plays, which is a mainstay of therapist training. GET USED TO THIS IDEA NOW! It seems to be a go-to tool in training beginning therapists. One student plays "the therapist," and the other plays "the client." Sometimes you do the role-plays privately, but you will also be expected to do them with the whole class watching.

Dr. Stevens made a really great choice in letting us create a character when we played the client at first--I think this gave us all time to get comfortable with each other. Then, after awhile, if we wanted to bring in personal issues during role-plays (like friend drama or family problems etc), we could. 

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you go into this class with an open mind and a collaborative spirit. Try your best to set a tone that encourages the rest of your class to approach this as a team. You really don't want it to descend into a competition, where you're trying to win the title of Best Therapist when you're in the therapist seat or trying to trip up your classmates by playing Problem Client when you're in the client seat. This is a class for introspection and muddling through the newness of it all, not for trying to demonstrate how amazing you are. You should also get in the frame of mind to receive feedback, because you'll get a lot. I highly recommend Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly, and you can read my review for my thoughts on what she has to say about giving and receiving feedback--it should be required reading before Practicum!

There were no exams in my practicum class; instead, we had some writing assignments, turned in weekly journals, and had a couple role-play projects where we paired up and filmed role-plays for submission, and for one of them we had to write out a transcript of the session. There was also a final PowerPoint presentation about our experience over the semester.

This may seem like a dry, boring class, but I promise you, it's really important with a lot of real-world applications. I had Dr. Ian Russ, who used to be Chair of the Board of Behavioral Sciences (the MFT licensing board in California) and has also been involved in CAMFT, one of the main professional organizations for MFTs in California. He has extensive personal experience with many of the issues covered in this course.

Most of each class is taken up with a lecture by Dr. Russ; he uses the Socratic method, so he'll pause his lectures frequently to ask the class a question (and he will wait for an answer, so don't think he'll move on if no one says anything!). In almost every class there is also a group presentation on a specific theme--you'll sign up in the first couple weeks of class. These cover things like Tarasoff situations as well more broad categories like eating disorders and child abuse; each group is expected to cover both the legal and ethical issues associated with their topic and present with a PowerPoint. There were two quizzes during the semester that were pretty hard (you really need to learn everything, so try to listen for the details that Dr. Russ thinks are especially important), but the final was really based on the quizzes so it wasn't brutal.

I feel like this class did a great job preparing me for the gray areas of this profession, but it was definitely designed more to encourage critical thinking and evaluating your personal ethics rather than preparing students for the Law & Ethics licensing exam that must be taken in order to practice. Dr. Ben Caldwell also teaches this class, and he has written a prep textbook for that exam, Preparing for the California MFT Law and Ethics Exam, that I highly recommend. I bought it the first week of class and followed along as we moved through the semester, so I feel like I learned the material with an eye towards the exam.


I was not a psychology major as an undergraduate (I studied English literature), so this class was the most challenging but also my favorite. I learned so much! I had Dr. Deborah Buttitta, who is really smart and kind. I loved her teaching style--mostly she lectures, but she's very open to questions and discussion if anyone is confused about anything. Her PowerPoint slides were crucial for preparing for the quizzes during the semester.

The course, as its name implies, covers research methods used in the field of family therapy. Dr. Buttitta emphasized that even if you have no intention of doing research yourself, it's very important that as a clinician you understand research (and what makes research good), as one of our ethical obligations as therapists is to be up-to-date on the latest research that can help our clients.

The major component of this class was the literature review. I had never done one before--my classmates who were psych majors were familiar with this project so I don't think it was as intimidating to them. But even though it was intense, I do think this was an excellent assignment to practice coming up with a question, finding literature that could help answer the question, and synthesizing all the material into a usable form. I would definitely take another class with Dr. Buttitta.

What I Have Learned

The biggest lesson I learned about graduate school is that even though my classes only meet two evenings per week, it is in fact a full-time class load. There is SO MUCH reading, and there really are a lot of group presentations and projects that take up a lot of time. So while it was possible for me to continue to work part-time while I was in school, it was a delicate balancing act. My classmates who have full-time jobs were much more stressed, so I would really say that if you must continue working a full-time job while you're in school, you may want to only consider programs that allow you to go part-time (CSUN is a full-time program).

The other major lesson I have already addressed above--I think my classmates are an integral part of why my experience so far has been so incredible. I simply cannot imagine doing these classes online and not having my classmates to discuss things with. Also, hearing my classmates' perspectives in class discussions but also outside of class has truly expanded my experience and understanding of the world, which I think is vital both as a therapist-in-training as well as a person in general. I feel so lucky to have met such compassionate, inspiring, funny, smart people. I hope your experience is as transformative!!

If you have any questions about the grad school experience, don't hesitate to contact me


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